Kristiane F is pulling at my sleeve. In the otherwise perfectly friendly city of Berlin, at the back of Zoologischer Garten Station, she is one of the few exceptions. A man openly urinates across the gated fence of the local courthouse, two overweight policemen chat with each other - unconcerned or unnoticing - further down the street and a group of homeless people quietly wait at the door of a shelter. The doors to the Helmut Newton Foundation (HFN), or Photography Museum, are right between these two as yet unrelated moments of street life, in a way that would have possibly caught the eye of a talent like Weegee, if not necessarily of the German master himself.
A huge text on the facade reads: Pigozzi and the Paparazzi. A smaller list of names under it: Salomon, Weegee, Galella, Angeli,Secchiaroli, Quinn. Check check check check check check... but who the hell is Pigozzi? Eager to find out, I cross the treshold between Berlin and some other place inside. “YOU ARE LEAVING THE REALITY SECTOR” could have made perfect sense on this treshhold from the street to a red carpeted, white walled, well lit-out grand space, under the watchful eyes of at least three prussian gards - wide bellied guys in white shirt black tie kits - and a prussian lady wearing a black tailleur, black rimmed spectacles, black hair tight chiffon, and excruciatingly high heels, horse whip at hand, friendly smile. Now a few of these details could have been imaginary, evoked by prenotions or expectations, as I am distracted by a raw of huge black and white prints towering on the monumental staircase in front of me. They seem fashion photographs from the seventies, but with an almost gravitational Newtonian twist: the beautiful models are statuary, tall and on heels, sternly looking in front of them, crisply sharp, stark naked.
Newton was one of those unsofferably happy, few, highly successful photographers to have defined their style, and thus becoming rich and famous, by shooting the rich and famous (or less famous but very beautiful) women, often naked and infused in his own particular brand of eroticism – a mix of sadomasochism and other isms that only experts and psychiatrists could correctly put a name to. But let us make no mistake, Newton was neither crazy nor a fool. He consistently got away with things that could easily turn ugly in less proficient hands, and produced images that are provocative, but still glossy and very commercial. He was totally unapologetic, and easy to hate as a character as much as his work is strongly appealing, though possibly for feticistic reasons rather than artistic ones. He probably didn’t care either way.
Undoubtedly many of his images are memorable. Personally I like Elsa Peretti wearing a Playboy bunny costume on a New York rooftop, to name one. But in front of the huge nudes I am divided. What am I looking at? Is it the women? Am I supposed to be oedipically shrunk by these huge godlike venusses, or sexually aroused by their mega, sharp, model-perfect nudity? Is the oversize print to enhance their supernatural beauty or simply the better to be admired from a distance in the architectural space?
Some instinct is wary as I cross the door to the groundfloor exhibition dedicated to Newton’s own work and a few possessions, because it all looks too grand and cultural in its set-up for something that as clever as successfull as it has been, surely isn’t serious art, is it? Even if I had been completely convinced by his work at the deepest level, I would find the display of his personal clothes quite irrelevant and strange. It smells of a somewhat macabre attempt at selfdivinization. Even one of his cars is on show, a ridiculous custom made contraption that he used in LA and in which he was to die, heart struck, in traffic stuck. Surely all this is beside the point in a serious photography collection? Istrionics may be very expedient in life but are potentially absurd in death and tend to fog the issue of one’s real worth and legacy.
High time to find out about Pigozzi, whom I have never heard about, and the paparazzi – but what do they have to do with Weegee and Salomon? – on the upper floor. Not so fast...
Traditonally, at Cannes film festival a miscellanious crowd of lens men (for want of a better name) frenziedly feast on topless unknown starlets laid about along the beach at appointed times and places. Quite surprisingly HN wasn’t above all this but joined in, from a ladder - let it be said - to get his very own angle on the proceedings. Some large rooms are devoted to the resulting shots, an overkill all around in my opinion.
At last the inner core of the show, the revelation of Jean Pigozzi (a fellow Italian, business man, socialite, photomaniac, with a collection of snapshots in the company of assorted glitterati and celebrities, a funny not unlikable southern levantine kind of guy, big face, nice interaction; the series is amusing to look at with the accidental little giggle here and there). Then the hard stories of Ron Galella’s and the other real paparazzi, the fights, the indiscretions, the tireless probing with huge lenses on a stretch of the French riviera - that is little more than a shooting range for sitting golden ducks, and could easily be avoided if celebrities were anything short of very eager to be caught with their pants down in the sun. They need each other, go about their respective business, we suck the results on printed paper.
As HN himself occasionally would shoot celebs out of their pants, although by appointment, explicit consent and probably in five star secluded locations, a connection if flimsy is established. Furthermore some of them knew him personally, met at parties possibly – them shooting, him mingling – and he had developed a fellinian interest in the phenomenon. But what has all this to do with Weegee or Salomon? They had invented serious photojournalism, to the point of art. Weegee shot unknown people producing masterpieces, while paparazzi trash celebrities into pulp, mostly. They are almost opposites.
One truth if anything seems to transpire from their work: much mondane fame is randomly bestowed by chance on occasionally undeserving persons. We would do better not to be so interested in them.
HN wasn’t undeserving, he was very talented. At some point he probably had a choice about what to do with his talent and went for the good times. All you see about him, his very attitude, is both provoking and guiltless.
To put things into perspective, in all fairness to the great city of Berlin, one could hop on the U-bahn and go to the Gemaldegalerie, to name one, where the same entrance fee of eight euros will let you in on a fantastic endless collection of paintings, very serious art indeed.